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An entire village echoes their protests against a Buddhist priest’s attempts to lease valuable temple land for a development project

Today the world moves at a mind whirling speed. Its changes are continuous and inevitable. But even today life in rural Sri Lanka has stubbornly stuck to its roots and centers on the common and historical concept of “Gamai pansalai, Wewai Dagabai” (the village, the temple, the tank and the dagoba). Their lives simple, despite the many changes, villagers still continue to live life as their ancestors once did through farming and chena cultivation.

The village of Nakalogane, situated in the North Western Province is no different. It is said the village history goes back to the times of King Walagamba. To the people of Nakolagane the Palukadawala reservoir and the Nakoalgane Raja Maha Vihara is life itself.

According to Walathwawe Rahula Thera, while creating 150 jobs, the companies have also promised to develop the temple and help villagers who will receive land through the same lease scheme to take part in the cultivation project

However, while the bond between the temple and the village remained strong till recently, today the atmosphere is one of animosity and anger. The bond somewhat frayed, many dayakasabha members are refusing to visit the temple, while some claim that it has been made clear they are not welcome there anymore.

The issue of the said contention is the attempt by the Chief Incumbent of the Nakaloagane Raja Maha Vihara to introduce a development plan which will require the clearance of 1000 acres of forest land belonging to the temple under the Vihara and Dewalagam Act.

According to the Chief Incumbent of the temple, Walathwawe Rahula Thera the temple was presented with over 5000 acres of land during the time of King Shree Wickrama Rajasinha. “It is said in the thambasannasa given to the temple that these lands will belong to the temple till the sun and moon may exist,” says the chief priest.

Chief Incumbent Walathwawe Rahula Thera
Chief Incumbent Walathwawe Rahula Thera

Development plan
The proposal made by the priest speaks of illegal use of land by the villagers. According to RahulaThera around 2000 acres of temple land is being used by the villagers and has deprived the temple of any profit gained by them. “We have no issue with people using the land, but the temple has no income,” he claims.

According to the Thera therefore he is now attempting to lease forest land belonging to the temple for the purpose of creating sandalwood and mango plantations. The land (No. 80 / 156 plot) bordering the Palukadawala reservoir is therefore now being quantified and marked as per the recommendation of the Commissioner General of Buddhist Affairs, says the Thera adding that permission from the Dayaka Sabha was taken in this regard, a claim many of the Dayaka Sabha vehemently denies. “We never agreed to this,” says Secretary of the Nakolagane Environment Protection Collective (Parisaraya Surakeeme Ekamuthuwa) W. Wijekumarapala. He alleges that signatures of previous meetings were used by the priest to make this claim.

However according to Rahula Thera those opposing the development plan are individuals who have occupied temple land illegally. “They are forging deeds and selling our land” he says adding that the project will be beneficial to the people itself. According to Rahula Thera, while creating 150 jobs, the companies have also promised to develop the temple and help villagers who will receive land through the same lease scheme to take part in the plantation of sandalwood and mango on their lands as well. “If this land was given to villagers alone there will be no development, this is why I have approached these companies,” he says.

Nakalogane (4)
Members of Nakolagane Environment Protection Collective

Nakalogane (11) Nakalogane (12) Nakalogane (9)
Villagers
However the voice of many villagers against the project seems unanimous with the recent organization of a protest against the decision of the priest. According to villagers the project will adversely affect them in two ways. “The lower areas might not receive sufficient water for paddy farming once the project gets underway,” says HM Piyarathna, a farmer in the area. He adds that the areas close to the site will also be affected through pesticides and ground water issues. “We worry this will cause Kidney issues in people” he says. But Rahula Thera dispelled such talk as mere rumors.

Many villagers fear that clearing of the forest will cause soil erosion there by filling part of the reservoir. “We are worried this will lessen the capacity of the tank leaving us with insufficient water for farming needs,” says W Wijekumarapala. While Sandalwood requires large quantities of water, Villagers fear this will too affect their livelihood.

According to the villagers and monitoring by experts of the Center of Conservation and Research, around 300 elephants are said to roam in the area reserved for the proposed project. “If they have no place to go this will increase the human-elephant conflict in the area” says W. Wijekumarapala adding that this is the only forest area for elephants and many animals in the area. While rich with herbal plants and animals, the villagers lament the loss of what they consider their proud heritage. “The earlier chief incumbent protested against an open air zoo being created here” says a village elder. “The priest said this temple land is for the people to live off,” he reminisced.

However Rahula Thera says the talk of 300 elephants is not true. “Only a handful ever visit the site and that too in passing,” he says adding that the villagers are lying to gather support for their cause.

“There is even an archeologically important site,” says one farmer claiming that these sites are also being bulldozed by those conducting the quantification.

The land also brings up the issue if it includes the catchment area of the reservoir. While Rahula Thera claims people anyway have chena cultivations in this area if such the catchment area does come within the temple land it will be let go of while quantifying the land for the project. At the time of writing the Irrigation Department of Nakolagane have sent officers to observe the site to ensure land adjoining the reservoir has not been damaged through the bulldozing and other activities in the area. Speaking to The Nation a retired officer attached to the Nakolagane Department of Irrigation said a quarry in the same area was halted by order of the department as it was declared as belonging to the catchment area in the year 2007.

While such lease of land is not illegal under the Vihara and Dewalagam Act it must be noted that under the National Environment Act of 1980 clearance of over 100 acres should be notified and supported by an environment impact assessment. While the proposal states that 1000 Acres will be leased out to the companies, when visited, Rahula Thera claimed that the temple will now only be able to provide them with 100 Acres due to various issues making such notification and an EIA not required.

Nakalogane (13)
Approximately five acres excavated for soil as building material for roads

Nakalogane (10) Nakalogane (8) Nakalogane (7)Call for tradition
Nakolagane is serene and unsoiled. However, it only takes a walk around the village to see land being utilized in various detrimental ways to gain profit by those in authority. While the bond between the village and temple should be strong, the villagers appear disheartened and let down by the recent events. While many in power and urban areas go after development with great gusto, the voice of villagers only called for maintaining tradition.

“We have no need for development” says RMK Rathnayaka an elder of the village. Surprisingly the sentiments of the younger generation were similar. Puranagama Walagamba Govi Samithiya secretary HNM Samanhetti says that all village farmers are contented with their lives.

This sentiment was echoed throughout by many a farmer throughout the places The Nation visited in this village. “Our ancestors lived like this and we are happy this way,” says Samanhetti adding that they are against such multinational companies. “They come to our areas and do as they please, we have seen the effects of such people on villages” says Wijekumarapala.

While some may aim for development it must be understood that villagers of Nakolagane and elsewhere yearn for their simple way of life. Their love for the trees and animals are unconditional along with their passion to protect all that’s dear to them. “Tradition is what we call for” they all say with the hope that their view is understood by those that matter.

Nakalogane (5) Nakalogane (6)Nakalogane (2)

Palukadawela-wewa graphic